Rooting for farmers, and farmers’ markets

Crows peck down the length of a row of perfect, round, ripe melons, ruining each with a large hole and moving on to the next.

Cutworm caterpillars shear off tender transplants just under the soil line, leaving a dead, toppling plant behind.

Rust blight blows in on the wind and takes the garlic crop for three years running, no matter where the the beds are relocated.

Water lines have to be moved constantly in the heat, remay coverings need to be repositioned, weeds threaten to take over a patch of this or that. Long rows require thinning. The peppers suddenly look a little pooped. Why? What now?

And there’s always the weather: a late, cold, wet spring, a summer that’s too hot and dry, an early surprise freeze, stretches of relentless wind, or rain, or chill …

Once a month I get to see the enormous work, or parts of it, on my daughter’s three-acre farm. Rebecca and her farm partner, Carla Jo, and their crew work harder than pretty much anyone I know, and I’m sure it’s the same on every small farm in the country. The tasks are endless, glitches happen all the time, the labor is taxing on every part of their bodies, and the constant battle with the elements is daunting to watch, much less actually do.

Bellingham’s wonderful Farmers’ Market starts the 2012 season this Saturday, April 7. Farmers will probably be selling various kinds of kale, garlic greens, cauliflower, herbs, broccoli sprouts, green onions, collards, mustard greens, and lots of bedding plants for those of us who do gardens of our own. I want to say this: Support these local farmers! Attend our market on Saturdays, even if the weather is not ideal! When the Wednesday market starts up in Fairhaven (June 1 through September 28), go to that one too, behind Village Books. Get to know the people who grow this great food! Go to the market with friends, run into friends there, get lunch from one of the many vendors, make it an occasion. It’s celebration time!

Even if I don’t buy much on a particular market day I like to simply go to the market, take in the sights and sounds and smells, and witness the results of lots of hard work by our small farmers. Our market has grown by leaps and bounds since I moved to Bellingham in 2004. What a vibrant, colorful, joyous scene. How lucky we are! A friend visited here from Los Angeles, where she goes to the sprawling Hollywood farmers’ market and another in Pasadena, and she exclaimed over what a great market we have here, saying it was the best one she’d been to.

On my daughter’s farm I see the back story behind all the beautifully displayed produce at the market. I watch the crew lifting heavy buckets and boxes; standing for hours with hands submerged in cold water scrubbing vegetables before spinning, bagging, or boxing them; squatting and bending as they weed by hand, hoe, plant, and pick; working long days to fill restaurant and co-op orders, make up CSA boxes, or get produce ready for market. They work in all kinds of weather, weather that makes the rest of us schlumps (including me) complain because we have to drive across town or take the dog for a walk.

Small farmers do this kind of work because a) they love what they do, and b) they are proud of what they grow by hand. Plus c) they are independent cusses who, most of them, couldn’t take working for a boss in an office. There is great satisfaction in feeding others, helping the earth by using sane, sustainable farming practices, and feeling that they’re making a difference. And they do make a difference! Completely aside from providing us with flavorful, fresh food, our farmers are a vital part of our community in so many ways.

Many local farmers donate their surplus produce, or grow extra for the purpose of contributing. Volunteers of the Bellingham Food Bank’s Small Potatoes Gleaning Project annually gather more than 60 tons of fresh produce from local farms and deliver the fruits and vegetables to area food banks, soup kitchens, and feeding programs. The Food Bank has agreements with more than a dozen local farmers who want all the food they’ve grown to be put to use. Farmers call Small Potatoes after their fields have been harvested, and volunteers rescue produce for Whatcom County’s hungry.

Some farms offer educational/experiential opportunities for school groups or open their fields for visits from elder groups and others. The Whatcom Food-to-School program is exploring new ways of getting local food into the schools, including a Harvest of the Month effort to feature seasonal local food in all eight public schools in Whatcom County.

When we buy from our industrious local farmers we’re eating food grown right here in the soil of the Pacific Northwest and tended to carefully by people who live in this community, who have a vested interest in the freshness, flavor, and quality of their produce. Their hard work is not the reason to buy produce from them, because all produce sold everywhere results from the hard work of someone. But when you know the source and the someone, it makes a difference. I’m so proud of Rebecca, Carla Jo, and all the others who work on Blue Moon Farm, whose produce and flowers are sold at both the Friday Harbor and Eastsound farmers’ markets.

Having a farmer daughter has taught me a lot—including varieties of vegetables, the whims of the seasons, the vagaries and challenges of farming life, and the dedication it takes to keep it all going. I have a better appreciation for what goes into that bunch of spinach than I would otherwise, and all the farmers at the market have my admiration and gratitude. From that first cabbage toss by Mayor Kelli Linville this Saturday to launch the market season to the very end at Christmas time, I want to go to the market as often as possible—on both Saturdays and Wednesdays—to say thanks to our indomitable farmers.

I hope to see you there!


Spring greens!

Since my last post, “Stormy Weather,” I’ve gotten some requests for suggestions about bitter and pungent spring greens for Liver and Gallbladder health. I somehow failed to link to the guest post I did about this for Ali Segersten and Tom Malterre’s great blog, Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen:

In that guest post there’s a list of greens (and reds!) that are especially good to be including in salads, soups, and stews these days. Yay for our livers and gallbladders!

Check out Tom and Ali’s other wonderful recipes.


Stormy weather


I like the title of this photo by Sarah Klockars-Clauser: “Storm Contained Therein.”

That’s how it feels sometimes, doesn’t it? Turbulent inner weather … cloudy thinking … moody squalls … emotional thunderheads …

Spring. We’re having the usual changeable weather outside, and some days changeable inside as well. Not just a few of us are tired of the gray and drip and chill, waiting impatiently for a prolonged stretch of sun and warmth. Which may not happen until July. 

Spring: the Wood phase in the Five Element cycle, the time of the Liver and Gallbladder systems in Chinese medicine. If it feels as if there’s a “storm contained therein,” it’s probably related to an imbalance in either of these two systems or both, because they are responsible for a good deal of our emotional health, and “storm” implies tumultuous emotions, related to Liver and Gallbladder.

The emotions associated with a Liver system imbalance are irritability, anger, frustration, stuffing things down, having an inflexible outlook, and/or feeling thwarted. Moody squalls. The physical manifestations of this can be PMS (cramps, bloating, breast tenderness, back ache, queasiness) or other menstrual symptoms, headaches, migraines, pain anywhere in the body, insomnia, palpitations, and digestive ailments.

In a Gallbladder imbalance, there might be a feeling of spinning your wheels, being indecisive, avoiding confrontation, lacking “color” in your life, or having no clear direction or purpose. Cloudy thinking. A Gallbladder disharmony could manifest physically as right ribcage pain or tenderness, pain in the upper back, uneasy or slow digestion, fatigue, headaches, or loose stools … or there could simply be the emotional manifestation of this disharmony.

Both the Liver and Gallbladder systems are connected strongly with the flow of Qi, or energy, through the body. Feeling frustrated, irritable, angry, or indecisive can block the free flow of Qi. When Qi is obstructed or stagnant, symptoms develop. Sometimes it’s hard to know what happens first in an imbalance: emotions causing physical symptoms, or the other way around. Sometimes an imbalance presents as one or the other, not both.

As plants emerge from the ground in spring, they grow strongly toward the light yet maintain their flexibility. Without that ability to bend in the rain and wind, plants will break. Likewise, when we aren’t emotionally flexible and able to handle life’s setbacks and frustrations, we can develop physical problems or a chronic kind of stormy inner weather—cyclic depressions, snappishness, critical voices in our heads, sensitivity to imagined slights, flying off the handle, strong judgments about others (or ourselves), needing to be in control of every little thing, and so on. It gets exhausting! And in being inflexible, we set ourselves up for more and more problems as time goes on.

We can help our Liver-Gallbladder systems by:

eating light, well-balanced meals, and especially in the company of loved ones

eating plenty of fresh chlorophyll-rich greens, both pungent and bitter

opening the mind to new ideas, experiences, and people

getting outside and moving

brainstorming new solutions to old problems

being willing to listen to others’ opinions

forgiving others, forgiving ourselves

welcoming opportunities for growth, no matter how uncomfortable at first

honoring our creative gifts, whatever they are

getting acupuncture for a “spring tune-up”

I humbly suggest (to you and to myself): Let loose the “storm contained within.” Find ways to resolve stuffed-down or pent-up emotions, and without blasting anyone out of the water in the process. See if the new life bursting forth all around us can restore faith in the goodness and wonder of life, and in the promise of brighter days to come.

The river below the river

Years ago I was privileged to be part of a monthly journal writing retreat group in Maryland under the guidance of poet and writer Kathleen Depro. She handwrote, bound, and individually illustrated the covers of small booklets of her own writings and poems of others, which I have kept and treasured.

We lost touch long ago—I recently learned that she died several years back at the age of 57. I want to honor the memory of her beautiful writing by excerpting here from a December booklet she made. It speaks of this time of year when we are surrounded by so much water:

We are in the nighttime of the year, the deep yin season of dark and wet and cold and stillness, a time of complete receptivity. This is a time to take in, absorb, reflect, hold, and contain.

In Chinese medicine, winter’s element is water, the water of life. We begin in the water; there is water in every cell of our bodies. We return to the water again and again, for renewal, for refreshment, for healing. We drink the water. We bathe in water. We swim in water. We float on the water; we rock on the waters.

We live through the winter on the flow of this water, this “rio abajo rio,” the river below the river, as described by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves. It is the river that carries us. It is the flow of life itself moving through us, the deep, nourishing stream.

The “river below the river” supports us, feeds us, quenches our thirst, carries the seeds of new life. It is full and deep and fertile. It is inside of us. It is “the natural gradient of the psyche” of which Jung speaks—this watercourse, this natural unfolding of the flow of our lives.

A balanced water element allows fluidity and flow, an ability to rest and nourish oneself and others, to guide perception and reflection and have a ready expression of feelings such as love.”–Staying Health With the Seasons, Elson M. Haas

There are rivers in us. Rivers move through us: rivers of tears, rivers of blood, rivers of qi—the life essence—rivers of breath, of dreams, of memories.

Rio abajo rio, the river below the river. We need to go down to where the water is flowing, let go of all the outer concerns and activities and go down to the banks of the river of our own lives. The river will carry us toward our own destiny. The river will find the way. We don’t have to figure it out. Our work is to be open and fluid like water, to receive like the river, to follow the path of least resistance, to flow around obstacles, to keep going.

“ … form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”  –Wendell Berry

Even as the river moves through us the water takes its shape from our own inner contours. The water carries all of our life—our sorrow, pain, longing, the song of our joy, the seeds of our springtime to come.

The water washes us anew; it bathes our hearts like the soft rain bathes our faces. The river connects the heights of the mountain with the waters of the sea. It is a link in time between the ancient past and the unknown future.

We surrender to the dark waters of this time of year—this ending time that is also the beginning. We let go. We consent to the mystery that is moving through our lives and that moves us. The river will carry us through this winter in our lives.

“O Seekers, remember: all distances are traversed by those who yearn to be near the source of their being.” –Kabir

Happy Solstice, everyone. Happy New Year. The water will carry us toward the light.


September. Glory days here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re having the summer that we didn’t have all summer! Such stunning days of sun, warmth, and blue skies.

As noted last time, in Chinese Five-Element theory this season of late summer is related to the Spleen system. In the last post I talked about some of the physical manifestations of the Spleen system. Here, I’d like to attempt to describe the psycho-emotional aspects of this phase of the Five-Element cycle.

The Chinese word Yi, or intention, represents the spirit of the Spleen system. It is the Yi that supports our ability to develop ideas and have sustained intention, purpose, clarity of thought, altruism, and compassion. The Chinese symbol for Yi is made up of two sections—the top section means “sound” and the bottom section means “heart-mind-knowledge.” Intention is the sound of the mind.

Just as the Spleen system is responsible for extracting nourishment for our physical bodies from what we eat, the Yi, or spirit level of this organ system, is associated with our being able to feel nourished on an emotional level.

The function of digesting food is only the most basic level of the Spleen system’s work, which also includes the ability to process situations with the intellect, and emotionally.

When the Yi (Spleen) spirit is healthy we are able to think clearly, concentrate, study, focus, memorize, reflect, and generate ideas. We can “digest” experiences and impressions and transform them into ideas, values, and actions. The Yi is also what allows us to have sympathy for others … and for ourselves! We are able to recognize our own heart’s purpose, have ideas about how to achieve that purpose, set that intention, and apply ourselves to that end.

When the Yi spirit is “disturbed” or out of balance, there can be obsessive thoughts, worry, brooding, ruminating, and “being up in one’s head” a lot. Thought patterns can go around and around without resulting in movement, commitment, or action but simply cause distress or insomnia or feelings of unease. There can be muddled thinking, internal chatter, and an inability to stay on track with ideas to the point of completion.

With a Yi disharmony, opportunities can feel like a burden of such endless possibilities that it’s hard to transform them into a productive reality or to take action. Such a disharmony can make one seem to be always dithering, never settling on a course of action … or, conversely, stuck, weighted with worry, and too mired to move forward.

Someone with a Yi disharmony can be over-nurturing of others to avoid facing his or her own issues, growth, or responsibilities. Empathy and compassion are healthy manifestations of the Yi spirit, but an out-of-balance state can result in codependency, a coping strategy of attention focused on others, caretaking others at the expense of taking care of one’s self, over-involvement in other people’s stories … or, on the flip side of that, neediness, clinging, self-absorption, too much focus on one’s own issues, and craving sympathy.

The possible causes of a Spleen/Yi disharmony are varied:

  • constitutional issues that began in utero or from genetic makeup
  • excess worry (which can begin in childhood)
  • unhealthy diet
  • digestive disorders causing malabsorption
  • anemia and vitamin deficiencies
  • excess sugar (which weakens the Spleen system over time)
  • childhood or later exposure to family dysfunction and/or alcoholism
  • long-term stress, strain, and/or exhaustion
  • non-ideal eating habits such as eating late at night, eating while on the go, or eating while doing something else

We can all probably recognize at least a few of the above symptoms or causes. It’s impossible to live a completely pure and stress-free existence or to stop worrying when all around us there is the suffering of others, or our own problems to confront. So … what can we do? How can we heal the Yi spirit? How do we hold to our intention?

  • Imagine the world as a rich, fertile ground for your ideas and actions, resulting in a bountiful harvest
  • stand your ground and feel solid in your intention
  • take on less and stay with things you start
  • get quiet and listen to your inner voice
  • allow yourself to say what you think and express yourself fully and clearly
  • stay centered and grounded in the face of others’ problems, needs, opinions, or demands
  • when faced with obstacles find ways to solve the problem and move forward, like a river flowing around a rock, rather than continuing in a futile, unproductive manner
  • give yourself the same loving advice you’d give a friend who is worrying excessively

In the creative cycle, the Spleen/Earth/Yi phase is the first step in getting something accomplished, whether it’s envisioning painting a beautiful picture, thinking about learning to play an instrument, deciding to take a trip, setting the intention to get in shape, wanting to learn a new language, and so on. The Spleen/Earth/Yi phase is the light bulb going off in our heads—Idea! Intention!

The next phase is the Lung/Metal/Po phase, during which we breathe life, energy and enthusiasm into the idea/intention.

After that is the Kidney/Water/Zhi phase, which brings forth the will to act and achieve and the persistence to see it through, to move the idea forward.

The fourth stage of the cycle is the Liver/Wood/Hun phase, which paces the idea and gets it in the right place at the right time to foster its existence and eventual success.

And the final, fifth stage is the Heart/Fire/Shen phase, which brings expression to the idea, makes the idea a reality, and brings it out into the world.

In future posts I’ll talk about these other phases and about how an imbalance in any of the stages can stumble us up with our goals and ability to fulfill our dreams. But for now, think: “nourishment.” Not only nourishment from all the lovely vegetables and fruits in this harvest season, but nourishment of the Self, the spirit, the soul.

Earth’s sweet gifts

Here we are at the tail end of August, entering the Earth phase of the Chinese Five Element cycle, beginning around the third or fourth week of this month until shortly after the autumn equinox.

It’s that still point between the busyness of Summer/Fire, which is outward, active Yang energy, and the coming Autum/Metal, which is cooler, inward Yin energy. Late Summer/Earth season serves as a bridge and a place of balance, a short “extra” season that rests at the center of nature’s cycles.

Late summer is all about nourishment, both physical and emotional, but it’s also a time of transition when many changes occur both in nature and within ourselves. We may find ourselves feeling fatigued at this time, which can be the result of continuing the over-exertion of Summer/Fire activities when our bodies may want to simply rest. This is a time of starting to slow down, a time to enjoy Earth’s abundant offerings of vegetables and fruits. This is a season to relax, eat fresh food, and enjoy family and friends.

In Chinese medicine the Earth phase is associated with the Stomach, Spleen/Pancreas, muscles, and the mouth. The organ systems of the Stomach and Spleen together build and maintain the whole body by preparing food for absorption, digesting food, and feeding muscles and blood with nutrients. The Spleen system stores blood, forms antibodies, and produces white blood cells to fight off harmful invaders. It is responsible for absorbing, transforming, and transporting food, water, and Qi (energy).

When the Spleen-Stomach system is healthy and balanced, we feel nourished, stable, secure, grounded, and clear-headed. We are able to fully enjoy the sweetness of life, connectedness with others, and a sense of being “home.” Digestion and elimination run smoothly, we feel energetic, and sleep is deep and restful.

The Spleen is also said to house thought processes, and if there is worry and over-thinking, this system can suffer. If we don’t nourish ourselves well with whole foods, this system will falter. When the Spleen-Stomach system is imbalanced, we find life to be not so sweet, and this often leads us to substitute large amounts of sugar and processed carbs to compensate for what we are not getting in the way of real nourishment, either physical or emotional, or both.

A Spleen-Stomach system imbalance can manifest physically as fatigue/exhaustion, loose stools, constipation, pain or swelling in the stomach or abdomen, heartburn, uncomfortable feelings after eating, edema in the ankles or legs, poor lymphatic drainage, fatty tumors, weight gain, excessive appetite or loss of appetite, stiffness in the arms and shoulders, easy bruising, excess menstrual flow, spotting between periods, sluggishness, gingivitis, bleeding gums, and tooth decay. Western medical disorders associated with a Chinese medical diagnosis of a Spleen-Stomach pattern could include gastritis, duodenal ulcers, enteritis, chronic diarrhea, bleeding disorders, anemia, chronic hepatitis, diabetes mellitus, and cholecystitis.

Emotionally, a Spleen-Stomach disharmony can show up as worry, insomnia, ruminating, obsessive thinking, mental agitation, lack of concentration, memory loss, brooding, neediness, depression, being “up in the head” a lot, having looping thoughts. We may find ourselves feeling isolated and disconnected from others.

This is a time of year to make sure to get enough rest, exercise, stress reduction, great nutrition, and time with friends and other loved ones in order to boost Earth energy. Now is when we harvest and store foods to nourish ourselves through the winter ahead, and emotionally and spiritually it’s a time to contemplate, reflect, and consolidate memories and experiences that will feed our spirits in the months to come.

Paul Pitchford, in Healing With Whole Foods, says that “to attune with late summer, one may listen to its subtle currents, as if living at the instant where the pendulum reverses its swing. Find the rhythms and cycles that make life simple and harmonious.”

Pitchford advises choosing foods for each meal that represent the center, the Earth—that is, mildly (and naturally) sweet foods, yellow or golden foods, round foods, and/or foods that are known to support the Spleen-Stomach system. Fortunately, we have an abundance of many of these foods being harvested now on the small farms in this area—we can load up! Here are some of those Spleen-Stomach nourishing foods:

Corn, carrots, cabbage, squash, potatoes, string beans, yams, sweet potatoes, peas, apricots, cantaloupes, yellow peppers, pumpkins, pears, apples, onions, garlic, watermelons, tomatoes, turnips, fennel, horseradish, rice, adzuki beans, garbanzo beans, parsley, and millet.

In this transition season of late summer, when plants and fruit trees and berry bushes are offering up so much lush, yummy nourishment for our bodies and the weather continues to be simply glorious and encourages relaxing outside with food and fellowship, I want to thank the Earth, our Mother, our center, for her many gifts to us.

Ode to a peach

ALERT: This post is not much about acupuncture or Chinese medicine. So sue me.

I probably should be extolling the virtues of the cherries and berries so abundant in Whatcom County—and I do love them!—but I’ve been having peaches from eastern Washington and ohhh, wow. Talk about a burst of luscious summer flavor on the tongue. Talk about memories flooding back with that taste: childhood summers at my grandparents’ cottage on the shore of Lake Erie where there was often a bowl of sliced peaches on the breakfast table, and young motherhood in southern Pennsylvania when my kids and I made Peach Quicky from the Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook.

Peaches are so very fine all on their own, eaten fuzz and all or peeled and sliced and slurped up straight and unadorned from a bowl. And yes, they are more nutritious when eaten fresh and not cooked. But Peach Quicky … now that is heaven. There is nothing quite like hot, spiced fruit on top of something cold and creamy. The simplicity of this dessert made it a family favorite and a go-to recipe when company came.

Remember Alice’s Restaurant? Arlo Guthrie’s song, the movie, the cookbook? I still have the original cookbook, published in 1969, the year one of my sons was born. Alice Brock inspired me as a budding cook to experiment, play, improvise, and get over my notion that I had to follow a recipe precisely. Her cookbook was more about having fun in the kitchen than producing the perfect dish. Today some of the recipes might give one pause in light of warnings about liberal use of butter or sugar and in this day of fresh as opposed to canned or frozen, but her basic message stands the test of time: play around with food, try new things, make it up as you go along.

Her directions for Peach Quicky: “Take a can or two of peaches, drain them, and put them into a buttered baking dish, cut-side up. Sprinkle them with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and some old cookie crumbs or graham cracker crumbs. Drizzle ’em with honey or maple syrup, dot ’em with butter, and put them in a hot oven or under the broiler till they are all bubbly. You can top them with ice cream or good old whipped cream. Serves 2 to 4.”

I’ll admit it here and now: all those years ago I used to buy canned peaches to make this recipe, and I still would if I got a hankering for it in the middle of winter! But having an organic farmer daughter has made me much more conscious about trying to eat in season and buying food grown locally.

These days would I alter Alice’s recipe depending on who was coming for dinner with various food allergies: Slice fresh peaches and put in a buttered (or oiled) baking dish, drizzle with honey and/or maple syrup, sprinkle some cinnamon and nutmeg on, dot with butter or coconut oil (solid at room temperature), bake in a hot oven (about 400 degrees) for 8 or 10 minutes until bubbly, and at the very end crumble toasted gluten-free ginger snaps over the top. Then spoon the hot fruit over regular vanilla ice cream or creamy Greek yogurt or dairy-free Coconut Bliss ice cream.

Mm-MMMM! I would add berries too, since this is berry country and because the berries make the dessert all the more colorful and delicious. The hot fruit begins to melt whatever’s underneath, and the last drops in the bowl are a yummy blend of creamy and fruity.

Why, I might even heat up some rum in a saucepan, pour it over the Quicky, and set it alight as a flambe upon serving, which I’ve never done before … but I think Alice would approve.

Bellingham’s fabulous farmers’ market has a couple of vendors from eastern Washington who sell fresh peaches, nectarines, and other fruit—Tiny’s Organic from Wenatchee and Martin Family Orchard from Orondo—and I like supporting their work of getting such tender, perishable fruit over the mountains to us here. The Co-op and Terra Organica have organic peaches also. If I was more religious about eating strictly local I would stick doggedly with the cherries, berries, apples, and pears grown right here in Whatcom County, but I just can’t give up the chance to have a fresh peach in season. No way.

Okay, as a health care practitioner I feel it’s my duty to tell you that peaches moisten the lungs and intestines and help with a dry cough, aid in reducing high blood pressure, and are good sources of lycopene and lutein, which are phytochemicals that are beneficial in the prevention of heart disease, macular degeneration, and cancer. They’re rich in iron, beta carotene, and potassium and help ensure proper functioning of cells, the balance of fluid and electrolytes, and nerve signaling.

But really, do you need to be convinced to eat a peach?